Centered on the acting talents of the late Tuncel Kurtiz, the film is a ribald, engaging, and briskly-paced concoction of improvisation and folklore with a cast consisting of actual residents of the Anatolian mountain towns that double as backdrop and narrative foil.
By Matt Hanson
There aren’t many films that I know of which feature one actor playing several roles, especially leading ones. It’s interesting how rarely this happens in film, since the editing process makes it especially easy to accommodate multiple character studies at once, even if they are all played by the same person. A few titles do come to mind, as well as the actors who are legendary at least in part because they were able to successfully pull this kind of ambidextrous feat off. I’m thinking specifically of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove, but film fanatics out there can probably add some other names as well. Well, after seeing Tales of Intransigence at the 13th annual Boston Turkish Film Festival last Friday, I can safely add Tuncel Kurtiz to the list.
Tales of Intransigence is the 2004 feature directed by Reis Çelik, which is a kind of road movie for northeast Anatolia. Çelik’s film works on a structural level as a interplay of stories revolving around the talents of Mr Kurtiz, a ribald, engaging, and briskly-paced concoction of improvisation and folklore with a cast consisting of actual residents of the Anatolian mountain towns that double as backdrop and narrative foil.
The plot runs in two different tracks, with an amiably contentious contest between a native sleigh-rider and a driver with a red minivan. Each of them are pretty confident they have what it takes to get their passengers across the harsh and dauntingly bleak terrain, so they take a sporting bet that they can get across faster than the other one can. Along the way we are treated to the stories their passengers tell Chaucer-style to each other, based on local legend. I’m mentioning Chaucer specifically, since each of the tales they tell invoke an almost classical spirit of bawdy morality and folly. Çelik remarked after the screening that due to the strenuous and extensive winter evenings in this part of the world, storytelling is a natural product of solitude and time. Tales of Intransigence is in a sense narrated more than acted, which adds a rich layer of language on top of the dazzlingly raw and majestic snowbound landscape.
We hear of a man who is driven to paranoid delusions of his wife’s infidelity after he pulls the short end of a wishbone during a feast. The community’s teasing drives him over the edge. There is a lovely, well-born woman who is given a seemingly insurmountable task by her autocratic father to prevent her from marrying the commoner she loves. She not only accidentally solves the puzzle, but decides her guy isn’t worth the hassle after all. Along the way, there is feasting, some wittily pointed banter about the Iraq War, gorgeously imposing landscapes and group dancing on rugs laid out atop a frozen lake. A piano is rolled in in the midst of the party for someone to play a few licks, only to have it rolled away once he’s finished.
For a Turkish film novice like myself, one couldn’t ask for a better actor than Tuncel Kurtiz to introduce a film which is, essentially, an experiment in form as well as function. Part of what interested me about the film in the first place is the almost Werner Herzog-like experimentation of the premise. Çelik and Kurtiz decided to rough it in the beautiful and rather desolate terrain of Çelik’s childhodd without a crew or script to speak of, using some of the locals as both extras and major players, and let the camera roll. Çelik’s ability to keep all these elements working together in sync isn’t just an accomplishment for any filmmaker, it’s also testament to his skills as an auteur.
The film opens with Kurtiz reciting some local folklore about why the mountains in Anatolia are permanently enshrouded in white. It’s a tale of birds and war and mankind, describing the power of perseverance in the shadow of a glittering abyss. In Çelik’s film, Kurtiz exudes a welcoming screen presence, avuncular but authoritative, genial but world-weary. I thought of him as some kind of mixture between, maybe, Peter Falk and Morgan Freeman.
Kurtiz is not only the principal actor, he’s also the connecting thread between the different scenes, adding an identifiable and compelling guide through the film‘s twists and turns. The screening of Tales of Intransigence was followed by a feature length making-of documentary entitled Film Against All Odds, detailing Çelik’s experience with Kurtiz during the production of the film. It was refreshing to see a behind-the-scenes perspective directly after seeing the movie, one of the benefits of a film festival. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to see Kurtiz, clad in a long black coat and hat, reading some Turkish poetry aloud to the vast expanse below him.
Also, it is fascinating to watch Kurtiz and Çelik improvise and collaborate with the locals during a long haul in a very rough terrain. It reminds the viewer of just how difficult it was was to make this film, particularly with the rigorous standards Çelik and Kurtiz set for themselves here Film Against All Odds shows us what it was like to line up difficult shots, keep the story going, and to get non-actors to keep the frame busy with life. And life there is, as we meet a 109-year old man who provides some fine character actor work in his very first acting role. He’s a humble, disarming fellow in a dapper blue suit and cane, explaining to Çelik and the camera that he does in fact still smoke and drink, albeit limiting himself to one Raki a night. On this occasion, however, he’ll have two.
After the screening of Film Against All Odds, Çelik was presented with an award for excellence in cinema. The evening got me interested in seeing some of his other work, particularly his Night of Silence, which won the Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2012. It’s a shame Kurtiz passed away last year because his voice was very much missed. The good news is that this was only the second night of what will be a multi-week showcase of Turkish cinema. It will be intriguing to see what comes next.
Matt Hanson is a freelance writer living outside Boston. His poetry and criticism has previously appeared in The Millions and Knot From Concentrate, He was a staff writer at Flak Magazine until its untimely demise. Ekphrasis, his poetry chapbook, was published by Rhinologic Press.